A top White House official said Friday that China’s expansion of nuclear capabilities and a “series of quite exotic forms of weaponry” highlighted the crucial requirement for “intensive dialogue” to mitigate nuclear risks.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Aspen Security Forum that it is “vital” for the United States and China to engage in nuclear arms talks to gain a mutual comprehension of their respective doctrines, intentions, and modes of operation.
“One thing I pointed out to my Chinese counterparts over the last two years is at various points in the Ukraine crisis when we’ve seen nuclear saber-rattling from the Russian side, is we have known how to deal with that because we have decades of muscle memory with the Russians in working on nuclear risk reduction strategic arms control [and] basic signaling,” he said.
“We do not have that with China, and that is inherently destabilizing and is something that we need to generate through intensive dialogue between the United States and China,” Mr. Sullivan added.
He reiterated that Washington remained “fundamentally available” to engage in such conversation and called on Beijing to do the same.
“We hope at some point the Chinese side will choose to join us in that because, again, this comes down to the basic responsibilities of nuclear powers, and it is an ability that we see Beijing not stepping up to right now,” he said.
Pentagon reports estimate that China will obtain 1,000 nuclear weapons by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035. Likewise, the regime now fields more launchers for land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles than the United States.
However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has refused to engage in arms control talks on the grounds that its nuclear strength is “far from being on par with the U.S. and Russia,” and promised to uphold its defensive nuclear policy.
Possible Stability in US-China Relations
Over the past month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and climate envoy John Kerry undertook trips to Beijing, engaging in meetings with top CCP officials to try to stabilize the strained relations between the United States and China.
Mr. Sullivan said he believed there was a “genuine possibility” to establish a stable relationship between the United States and China, despite the inherent competition between the two major powers.
“I actually think being clear, straightforward, and setting the emotions, the rhetoric, and some of these larger, philosophical framings aside and just getting down to the core practicalities, there is, I think, a genuine possibility for a stable relationship,” he remarked.
“Even though that relationship is inherently competitive and will involve us doing things that Beijing doesn’t like and will involve Beijing doing things that we don’t like,” he added.
“But diplomacy is all about being able to manage that set of structural factors, and that is what we are engaged in right now,” he said.
CCP Fears Guardrails May Benefit US
Mr. Sullivan said the CCP rejected the establishment of “guardrails” in its relations with the United States, contending that doing so is analogous to fastening seatbelts in a car, which would encourage the driver to speed up and lead to a crash.
Guardrails are intended to manage tensions and promote stability in the relationship between the two major powers. But the CCP was concerned that having guardrails might allow the United States to take on more risks, Mr. Sullivan said.
“And what we have tried to explain is actually the seat belt is a great analogy because wearing seat belts has dramatically lowered the costs and consequences of car accidents and is an inherently good thing in international relations as it is on the highway down the street,” he said.
“The United States stands prepared to engage in every level of military-to-military communication to avoid mistake, miscalculation, escalation, and frankly, the PRC does not,” the official added, referring to China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.
Mr. Sullivan said the sanctions imposed on Chinese defense chief Li Shangfu should not be hurdles for military talks between the United States and China.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has previously warned that China is part of a broader movement of authoritarian nations—including Russia, Iran, and North Korea—seeking to destabilize the international community through nuclear proliferation.
To that end, Mr. Stoltenberg said that NATO would need to push back against such threats while engaging with Beijing to bring it to the negotiating table. He added that China was not being transparent about the extent of its nuclear expansion.
“As a global power, China has global responsibilities. And Beijing, too, would benefit from the increased transparency, predictability, and security of arms control agreements,” he said on April 18.
“In the longer term, we need to rethink and adapt our approach to a more dangerous and competitive world. This means engaging with China.”
Andrew Thornebrooke contributed to this report.